Transatlantic Poetry Readings On Air

Transatlantic Poetry CommunityIf, like me, you are thrilled by the idea of being invited into the homes of remarkable poets thousands of miles apart to hear them read their best work, then you, my friend, are living in the right era. That time is now.

Since the early days of the Internet, I have been fascinated by the possibilities for making and sharing art. When my alma mater began broadcasting their Lunch Poems series at the turn of the century, I was delighted. It meant that not only could residents of Berkeley come to campus to hear free, live readings by world-class poets on their lunch hour, but that anyone could tune in from anywhere in the world. Still, the poets had to come to campus to read their poems.

In 2009, I interviewed Scottish poet Andrew Philip over Skype from my home in California as part of a “virtual book tour” for the launch of his first collection. Using screen capture technology, I was able to record our conversation and upload it for others to see. It was thrilling to connect across such a distance. However, producing the video was cumbersome, and was only available after the fact, not as a live broadcast.

This is why I was so excited to be contacted by Google back in April to hear about their celebrations of US National Poetry Month through a series of readings using Google+ Hangouts On Air. I was sadly unable to participate due to work commitments, but recalled the conversation when the British Poetry Special Feature from Silk Road Review that I edited came out earlier this month.

I wanted to celebrate the issue and bring the British poets together for a reading. However, they come from all over the UK, and travel to London can be difficult and costly. Plus, so much of the intent of the publication was to share the work of these poets with readers in the US.

Then it occurred to me that the reading need not be physical. So, with the support of the poets, Google, and Pacific University (sponsors of Silk Road Review), we are in the final stages of selecting dates for a very special poetry reading to be broadcast worldwide using Google+ Hangouts On Air. Continue reading…


Congratulations Again, Pacific University MFA

Culture is the key to a great program

I flipped open my copy of Poets & Writers this month to discover that Pacific University’s MFA in Writing Program has ranked fourth among the top low-residency MFA programs in the U.S., edging up one place from last year. Congratulations to the faculty, students, and staff who made this possible. What is remarkable is that the Pacific program has only been around for a handful of years, as compared to the three programs ranked above it (Bennington since ’94, Warren Wilson since ’76, Vermont College since ’81) and the one program it surpassed in these particular rankings this year (Antioch, started in ’97).

My theory about the secret to this program’s twenty-first-century upstart success is, once again: faculty, faculty, faculty.
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Me & Coyote by Abby E. Murray

When I ordered Abby E. Murray‘s new chapbook, “Me & Coyote,” I initially forgot that it came as part of the Lost Horse Press New Poets Series, the fourth in a series of book-length collections made up of three chapbooks by three different authors. The other two poets in this book, Jesse Fourmy and Karen Holman–also fellow students from the Pacific University MFA program–are both poets of distinctive voice and character. Their work deserves its own attention and careful reading.

But tonight I want to write about Abby’s poetry, because reading Abby Murray makes me want to be a better poet. By “better” I mean more wild, fierce, and free. Life can drive you crazy, if you let it. Health problems in the family and pressures at work have been leading me up to the brink. How refreshing, then, to read poems that regularly swan-dive off the edge, with such panache.

A poem like “Barnacle’s Son” convinces me, completely, that even if a man can’t be born from a rough sea creature, it ought to be possible. And within the language of the poem, it is. Equally convincing is the poem “How I Love You,” whose lines taper down and down, constricting on the final phrase, in all its tough rightness: “I love you more than / an iron fence / loves her / house.” And when “They Took Her Away in a Birdcage,” my face wanted to smile and frown all at once.

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Cloudbank Precipitates Great Poetry

“How open to suggestion / they have always been, carrying nothing // with them of the past, content to leave almost / everything behind…”

-Christopher Buckley, “New Clouds”

Cloudbank Issue 1I received a complimentary copy of the premiere issue of Cloudbank today. The journal is co-edited by Peter Sears, core faculty in the Pacific Unviersity MFA program, and the index reads like a roll-call of some of that program’s most talented writers: Arthur Ginsberg helps us see behind sight, Ron Bloodworth takes us into meditative country, Marianne Klekacz makes a Christmas-morning discovery of flight, Jennifer Whetham extols the sensuous mushroom, Beth Russell defends the curious appetites of the female praying mantis, and Abby Murray brings a glimmer of hard-earned compassion to a dog-eat-dog world. More than this, new poems by Christopher Buckley, Carolyn Miller, Margaret McGovern, and a host of other wonderful poets–some from the Pacific Northwest, others not–round out this impressive debut. A publication of Cloudbank Books in Corvalis, Oregon, Cloudbank the journal is accepting submissions for its second issue, including offering a $200 prize for one outstanding poem. Details for submitting poems, and ordering a copy of their excellent first issue, are available on the Cloudbank website.


Pacific University MFA Commencement Student Speech

Today I had the honor of giving the student speech at the 2009 Pacific University commencement ceremony. Here is the text of that speech.

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Standing at the podium. Associate Provost Wilkes, Dean Hayes, Vice President Akers, Ms. Washburn, faculty, staff, graduates, alumni, family, and friends–good afternoon. Today we celebrate our completion of the requirements for Pacific University’s Master of Fine Arts in Writing degree, and a milestone for each of us in our ongoing education as writers. This also marks the fifth year of this MFA program’s existence. And if any program has earned the right to act its age, this one has. If memory serves me, this involves spontaneous tantrums followed by graham cracker cookies and a nap. At least, that’s what I liked best about being five. It was also the age when I dictated my first poem to my kind and patient mother. It ran seven pages. And, although I have learned a lot since then, today I would like to be brief in simply reminding us all of some truths about this program, and about writing, we all already know–but might want to hear repeated.
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What I Learned in the Pacific University MFA in Writing Program

I have been asked to give the student speech in the upcoming MFA commencement ceremony. Needless to say, I am honored. I have been meditating on the experience of having completed this remarkable experience, now from a distance of about five months, and looking back over material from my time in the program. One piece that helps summarize some of what I learned from the MFA is the critical introduction to my graduate reading. And so, I am reprinting it here, on my site, for those who might be interested. I have enhanced the text with some hyperlinks. I gave this introduction, and then read poems from my thesis, on January 12th, 2009 at the Best Western Seaside Resort in Seaside, Oregon.

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I came to my first residency, here in Seaside, Oregon, one year after the death of our infant son. That event brought me back to poetry by momentarily stripping away all other ambitions. Poetry alone got me out of bed some mornings, and helped me chart the difficult inner landscape of grief, often in the bleary pre-dawn hours before work. I sought out mentors to assist me in improving my poems, and, on the sage advice of my friend and mentor Joseph Millar, I enrolled in the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Writing program at Pacific University.

Getting to that first residency was hard: it was the first time my wife and I had been apart since the birth and death of our son, my first time in the Northwest, and my first real writing conference. I knew no one other than Joe. But from my arrival by bus in the freezing dark, throughout the past two years, at every turn and in even the most minute details of my experience–I received confirmation, time and again, that I was in the right place.
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Open Thanks to the Pacific University MFA Program and All Who Sail in Her

In the movie, “The Savages,” Laura Linney’s character finds herself in a cheap motel outside of Niagara, having an affair with a married man she doesn’t really like. She sits bolt upright in bed, surveys the tacky decor and annoying middle-aged man beside her, and exclaims in pure bewilderment, “I have an MFA!”

It is funny only because it is true that having this particular combination of letters after one’s name is not an automatic pass into the love, understanding, and recognition we all crave. Being raised by public school teachers taught me that our society undervalues education in a way that can be seen as either comic or tragic–depending on how tired you feel at the end of the day–and that teaching is an act worth pouring your whole self into anyway. It is the same with art.

After the graduate readings at this residency, a new student remarked that they were struck by the profound sense of gratitude present in the hearts of each of us outgoing students. This program is suffused with a spirit of generosity. Faculty and students mix easily, talk honestly, and work hard not to take themselves too seriously. A visiting professor put it succinctly: “usually people are either really good or really nice–but here they are both.”

If the faculty were priests, and this were a church, we might predict that they will reap rewards for their generosity in heaven. But they are not priests, and this is not a church, and instead of taking confession or quoting answers from religious texts, they have instead stood by us, in their humility, and marveled at the beauty of the questions. It is a privilege just to be here, partaking of something that transcends commerce, and politics, and marketing-speak: the deep words. The ones that matter.

And the rewards these artists and teachers reap in this life, for having faced down the human condition in their own projects, and hung in there with us students through our likely all-too-familiar neuroses, insecurities, doubts, and hopes as we face down our own projects–is the knowledge, all too rarely expressed, that they have changed–not only our writing, but our writing lives–for the better.

If there were a better phrase in English to expres profound gratitude and respect, I would want to use it. But all I can think to say is “thank you”–to the faculty in all genres, to Dean Hayes for believing in this program, and to Shelley, and Tenley, and Colleen, and, formerly, Amber, and all the interns, past and present, who slog heroically behind the scenes to sustain this place where brilliance doesn’t require pretension, where sincerely never lacks toughness–where people set out, with their raincoats and tackle, in search of the deep words. It has been a privilege to travel with you in this vessel for a little while.